KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Here’s wishing a belated Happy Veteran’s Day to all Meat&Poultry readers who have served —or are still serving — in the nation’s armed forces…..and a heartfelt “thanks” to you for your service.
Growing up, some of my older relatives and their friends who served in the armed forces would sometimes sit around our kitchen table, chain smoke cigarettes and complain about how awful food was while they were in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. They were World War II- and Korean War-era veterans. More than likely, they were lamenting about having to eat field or sea rations during battle conditions or living off the land during perilous conditions. Who wouldn’t complain?
But while I was going to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago, Ill. from late November 1968 until early January 1969, my memories about service food is quite different. I remember drilling outside in the cold, dark, early-hour mornings while the mouthwatering scent of frying sausage, bacon and maple syrup wafted through the air as we struggled on the drill field fighting Lake Michigan’s frigid winter winds. Sure, I had many complaints about boot camp, but the food—especially the meat—was never one of them. Beef, ham, sausage, burgers, chicken and more were among the regular fare on the steam tables—and they were always good. Actually, this was the first time in my life I was able to enjoy meat and poultry that wasn’t cooked well done.
After graduating from boot camp, I shipped out to the US Lloyd Thomas DD-764, which was in the 12th fleet and stationed in Newport, RI, in January 1969. This Gearing-class destroyer was moored on icy Narragansett Bay. The ship’s chief petty officer cook in charge of the kitchen took great pride in his job and he worked miracles preparing extraordinary dishes using ordinary Navy fare. On my first Christmas holiday away from home in 1969 (I spent the holidays with my family while in boot camp in 1968 as our group was given holiday leave and I lived nearby), I was one of 17 men on a skeleton crew while all other shipmates were home with their families.
Despite having only a handful of people on board, the chief and his staff toiled for several days preparing a traditional Christmas dinner with roast turkey and all of the trimmings — mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, stuffing, butter rolls, green beans with bacon, corn plus pumpkin pie with whipped cream. The turkey was one of the best I’ve ever eaten and you could smell it for days throughout the entire ship. Those few of us on board were stunned—and in the end stuffed because we ate turkey for days—but no one complained. I remember the chief walking around during dinner with sweat on his brow from working so hard and long and asking each of us how everything was with a smile all the while.
Every now and then, crew members pulled extra duty. As a result, I was assigned to work in the chiefs’ quarters near the bow of the ship several times, which involved preparing food, cleaning the kitchen and quarters, among other things, for several weeks. It was great duty because the chiefs were good guys and never complained—and I had also had access to their commercial-sized refrigerator, which was always stocked with thick, long, foodservice sticks of pepperoni stuffed in a paper-like casing, which was very tough to peel off but always worth the struggle. They allowed me to have a stick now and then…and I shared it with other guys in the gunnery division.
However, moving around down in the chiefs’ quarters while underway was tough sometimes, particularly in rough seas — the small ship would pivot down, left, back and right while moving forward all the while…sometimes causing the bow of the ship to slap on the waves’ surface. Serving dinner with hot meat and sides and going up and down ladders from deck to deck under those circumstances wasn’t easy or fun—but it was always an adventure.
Once we were out to sea for several weeks, food rations slowly dwindled and they’d break out the powdered milk and eggs and other dehydrated fare. But the cooks always seemed to have bacon and sausage for breakfast, which saved the day.
Several of my hometown friends were in the Navy, too, but none of them cared much for the food they were served on board their ships. They always told me how lucky I was—but it wasn’t luck….it was our chief cook and his staff who made the difference. I can still picture his face, but his name has been long forgotten.
As time goes by, I’m sure I will forget even more about my old Navy days—but I will never forget that Christmas dinner in 1969. Here’s hoping that all new recruits currently serving in the armed forces who will be away from home for the first time during the 2014 holidays will be fortunate enough to have a chief cook who loves what he or she does. It made being away from home over the holidays for the first time so much more bearable for me.